Book Mark

When my friends’ son died by suicide, I bought them a book.

I can remember standing in a bookstore near the San Diego harbor, pulling book after book off the shelf, looking for just the right one that would speak to my friends’ terrible grief. Then I decided to mail it to them, somehow thinking that whatever insight that was offered in the book simply couldn’t wait for me to return to Milwaukee to give it to them in person. I wrote a weepy note which I tucked inside the cover and sent it off.

The topic of the book was how to manage grief. My sense at the time was that if they read the book, they would feel better. Thinking back, my naivete seems unbelievable, like a 5-year old with a bunch of dandelions showing up at a crash scene to comfort the survivors.

When I saw my friends a few weeks later at a memorial service for their son, I stood in line with many others to give my condolences. When I reached my friends, they both looked so bereft, so torn, that I put my hands on their faces, first one and then the other, almost pushing back their hair like they were children. I wanted to mother them. I wanted to console them. But there would be no consoling. Neither my grief instruction manual nor my physical presence could pull the knife out of their hearts by a single inch.

So I steered clear for a long time. Their grief seemed monumental. Out of my league. I told myself, you have no business butting in on their grieving. You don’t know what you’re doing. You did enough. Sending that silly book.

Then another friend lost her son to suicide.There is no comparing one to the other. Each is horrifying in its own way as only suicide can be. The shock, the suddenness of going from a normal life to one where every moment and every word are questioned, piled on top of what might be called ‘normal grief,’ that seems to be the essence of suicide.

I was out of town when this friend’s son’s funeral was held. I sent messages to her on Facebook and email and then, not being able to stand having done nothing, I took her a book and a candle. This time the book wasn’t an instruction manual on how to handle grief, or maybe it was. It was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, that traces her coming to terms with her mother’s death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. A few years later, my friend would post on Facebook that she’d had a Little Free Library built in her son’s name and my book was one of the first on its shelves. I don’t know if she ever read it. She had at least handled it. I’d told her I loved the book and I gave it to her. So there was that. It was not nothing as we used to say but it wasn’t much. She had better friends, I thought, even though I had known her a very long time. I knew she had better friends so I stepped back.

Then, unbelievably, another friend’s son died by suicide. This one was hard. The distant waves of grief I’d experienced with the other two now lapped at my feet. This one felt close for many reasons. So I sat down and wrote a poem. In the poem, I tried to speak to my friend’s grief, speak to my friend. I tried to be wise. I tried to rise above, not realizing until much later that the perspective I needed to gain was my own.

In the months since that time, I reach out, as she calls it. Thanks for the reach-out, she says. That’s all I do. She has better friends. I know that to be true. But I keep on, sending messages every now and then if only to tell her that her grief lives over here with me, too, for reasons I can’t explain to her or myself. So that’s what I do. It’s what finally feels right to do. Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened. So I send my messages and we go back and forth and it feels right.  But still I felt the need to buy her a book. I bought her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and I bought a new copy for myself because, you know, I had given my copy away to someone else.


Photo: Syd Wachs, Upsplash
Originally published October 2016

4 Comments on “Book Mark

  1. Keep reaching out to people. It helps. Be there. Actions matter. And, whatever you do keep writing.

  2. Jan, this is so helpful because you had the experience of having to face this situation three times, yet you resist the temptation of claiming to have “the answer” of how to handle this and similar situations. When someone has suffered such a loss there is no magic right thing to say, although simply just saying “I’m so sorry” isn’t so bad. But there are many ways to mess up and make things worse in your zeal to be comforting. I don’t have that magic answer either, but your three stories provide some great food for thought.

  3. it’s so hard to know what to do, all you want to do is take some of the pain off of them, and even share it with you to try to make their burden a bit lighter. all of your actions were so thoughtful, and done with the best of intentions, and your self reflection is so interesting .

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: